“Don’t Tell Me What to Think or How to Feel: Avoiding Didacticism”

In my last article, I touched upon the importance of subtlety of theme in effective writing. This can also be understood as the avoidance of didacticism, defined on Dictionary.com as “teaching or intending to teach a moral lesson.” LiteraryDevices.net defines didacticism as the idea that “art and literature ought to convey information and instruction.” Although didacticism was historically intentional in genres such as the spiritual allegory or moral treatise, the term is used today to describe writing that is “ostentatiously dull and erudite,” or in other words, overly preachy or pedantic.

In “The Heavy Hand of Didacticism,” Jon Gingerich says didactic writing “appear[s] as an educational guide instead of a means of enlightenment.” This is common in first drafts, he says, when the writer’s work is “littered with pointlessly pedantic derailments or instructional intrusion.” In an attempt to convey the intended interpretation or understanding of a work, the writer overcompensates with overwrought themes and overwritten description, ultimately frustrating the reader as opposed to drawing them in.

Even though every writer has the propensity to be didactic, certain steps can be taken in revision to avoid this kind of writing:

 

  • Avoid self-reflexive sentences. Gingerich says that one sign of didacticism is the “tendency to litter the plot with lengthy passages of a writer’s inner thoughts.” This includes things such as internal dialogue: “What would Rick do, now that he discovered his wife had cheated on him?” It’s the kind of self-conscious writing that, although intended to shed light on the character’s thoughts, actually makes writers seem, as Gingerich puts it, like “shut-in schizophrenics.” As opposed to these stream-of-conscious statements, effective writers convey the struggles or dilemmas of their characters through action or dialogue, allowing the reader to experience the story for themselves.

 

  • End one sentence early. My poetry mentor says it is best to “end a poem one line early.” Because poets have the tendency to over-explain or wrap up in the poem’s last line, her advice is to omit it altogether, allowing the previous lines and images to resonate with the reader as opposed to telling them how to feel about them. This is akin to Gingerich’s adage, “the deeper the thought, the less description is required.” This same advice can be applied to both long and short fiction–when revising, try to find the moments at the end of a chapter or paragraph where a character’s emotions are described or you are appealing to an abstract idea, and strike that line. Read the piece over again and decide whether the story itself does enough to convey that emotion or idea without having to expressly articulate it.

 

  • Strike a delicate balance between cause and effect. When deciding the outcome of the story, a balance must be struck between predictability and surprise. If the cause-and-effect relationship between early events and the outcome is too predictable, it may appear that the story is attempting to relay some sort of message or more to the reader. For example, if Suzy plays hooky from school for half of the semester and gets kicked out in the end, the message might be “don’t skip school, kids” – a horribly cliche sentiment that’s likely to turn the reader off. If Suzy skips half of her classes and graduates with accolades and makes the Dean’s list, the story is illogical and a poor representation of reality. However, if Suzy skips class and the story is really about her fear of failure or her adventures outside of class, the story is much more interesting, authentic and complex, and the outcome may surprise and demonstrate something true.

 

  • Use irony, symbols and witticisms judiciously. These elements of writing, found in many great novels, are much like cooking spices. They are best used in small quantities until the foundational skills and knowledge are established. As Gingerich puts it, too many symbols, ironic situations, and jokes or quips are like “metaphorical Easter eggs,” resulting in an “aesthetic insecurity” that reveals the lack of faith the writer has in their ability to tell the story. On the other hand, a well-placed symbol or subtle ironic element will appear masterful, enhancing the depth and complexity of the plot.

 

  • Be “real, accurate, visual, concrete.” Gingerich clarifies his advice when he says that “reserving your explanative proclivities is not an attempt at literary ambivalence. On the contrary, it’s an exercise in clarity.” In other words, it is still important to consider the thematic implications of the story, but the story should move from the concrete to the abstract as opposed to the other way around. Writers must first trust themselves to start with the story’s concrete elements of character and plot and allow the story’s trajectory to convey the theme or purpose of the story, and then trust their readers to glean those themes or purposes from their own “real, accurate, visual, concrete” writing.

 

Sources:

“Didactism,” Dictionary.com. http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/didacticism

“Didactism,” LiteraryDevices.net. http://literarydevices.net/didacticism/

“The Heavy Hand of Didactism,” Jon Gingerich, LitReactor.com. https://litreactor.com/columns/the-heavy-hand-of-didacticism

 

Kara Cochran

About Kara Cochran

Kara Cochran is a poet, writer, teacher, and editor. She received her MFA in Creative Writing from Rosemont College, and a BA in Creative Writing and German Studies from Denison University. She is the Assistant Managing Editor of Philadelphia Stories, Jr. and the former Managing Editor of Rathalla Review. She is a Fiction Southeast columnist and volunteers with Mighty Writers, a Philadelphia nonprofit dedicated to teaching children “to think and write with clarity.” She writes poetry, fiction, and articles about the craft of writing.